Conservationists are using information gathered from surveys of hundreds of people in a remote area of Kenya to find ways to help protect an endangered type of zebra, it was revealed.
There are thought to be just 2,500 Grevy’s zebra in the wild after their population declined steeply since the 1970s, though in recent years numbers have stabilised in their core areas in northern Kenya.
But little was known about whether the zebra, whose range once spread throughout the Horn of Africa into Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia, could still be found in the far north of Kenya.
The region is large and inaccessible so experts from Marwell Wildlife, Winchester, and its Kenyan partners decided the cheapest and easiest way of finding out where the Grevy’s zebra was and the threats it faced was to interview people from local nomadic tribes.
They also quizzed community members on their attitudes to the zebra, which is adapted to living in the drier, less hospitable northern areas of the country, in a bid to find effective ways to conserve the animal.
Guy Parker, from Marwell, said: “The zebra is important for conservation because first of all it is an endangered mammal and it gives a very good indication of the condition of the habitat where it lives, in semi-arid areas.
“It also gives a very poor, disenfranchised community an opportunity for development, as people will pay money to go and see the Grevy’s zebra.”
The survey asked 220 community members 40 questions each about whether the Grevy’s zebra still existed in the area, what they thought the threats were and people’s attitudes to the animal.
They then used computer software to analyse the vast and complex set of data to identify relationships between a range of issues such as education, tourism and development and see how they influenced attitudes to the animal.
The survey revealed that most people thought the zebra was declining in their area – largely due to hunting, particularly for traditional medicines.
There was a strong belief in the value of the fat of the zebra, which was thought to cure headaches, TB and back pain.
Dr Parker said the information was useful because it showed that the provision of conventional medicines and clinics to people in the far north of Kenya could help reduce hunting of zebra.
The research also revealed that Grevy’s zebra were still found in the area of the Sibiloi national park and in the eastern Chalbi desert, helping conservationists target their work.
Along with hunting for traditional medicine, meat and leather, competition for resources for livestock was a key threat.
But attitudes in communities towards the zebra were largely positive, with people acknowledging the Grevy’s zebra as a beautiful animal and recognising benefits such as tourism and leading herdsman to good pasture in times of drought.
The information will be fed back to local communities, conservation groups and councillors to help develop conservation schemes – for example eco-tourism – while Dr Parker will also carry out more targeted research using aerial surveys and GPS collars.
The conservationists also use camera traps to photograph individual zebra which can then by identified by software which reads the animals’ “barcode” of stripes.
Colin Shearer, predictive analytics strategist at SPSS, an IBM company, said the company’s software used for the survey enabled researchers to analyse complex data and find patterns, revealing how different factors influenced the conservation of the zebra.
“It gives a huge opportunity, if you can get on top of the data, to make intelligent decisions.
“In the past, the more data you have, the more difficult to make a decision, but with sophisticated analytics we are able to find patterns that we couldn’t do manually,” he said.